Horror book covers on an abstract background (clockwise from top left): 'Carmilla,' 'American Psycho,' 'Frankenstein,' 'It,' and 'Blood Meridian'
(Wildside Press / Vintage / Penguin / Random House / Illustration by The Mary Sue)

The 10 Best Horror Novels of All Time

The best horror novels are not for the faint of heart, lest that heart stop beating forevermore. But how best to quantify them? By the strength of their prose? By their literary merit? Or by their downright creepiness? How about a little of all of the above?

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Keep scrolling for 10 of the best horror novels of all time, ranked to the best.

10. Carmilla

Carmilla Deluxe Edition: The Cult Classic that inspired Dracula.
(Pushkin Press)

Carmilla is basically lesbian Dracula. Except that Sheridan Le Fanu’s sapphic horror novel predates Bram Stoker’s vampire story by 25 years. The story is presented in a casebook of Dr. Hesselius, the first occult detective in literature. Damn. Le Fanu was a serious trendsetter. The novel follows teenager Laura, whose dreams were haunted by a vampiric figure from a young age. Years later, her family takes the spooky young Carmilla into their care, and the girl begins making carnivorous advances upon Laura. The novel is notably progressive, and portrays the psychosexual relationship between the two girls without the expected 19th century prejudice. It’s the OG vampire story, Dracula be damned. (There’s also a great recent edition of Carmilla edited by Carmen Maria Machado.)

9. The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
(Penguin Group)

Shirley Jackson’s novel follows a group of siblings who had the misfortune of growing up in the haunted Hill House. Long ago, a terrifying phantasmic event forced the kids out of the house for good … or so they thought. Now grown up, the siblings are attempting to renovate the old house in order to sell it and be rid of it for good, but the malevolent old house isn’t quite ready to give up on them yet. If you’re looking for a novel about spooky ghosts and the things they do, The Haunting of Hill House is without peer.

8. Blood Meridian

The cover for Cormac McCarthy's 'Blood Meridian'
(Random House)

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is a difficult read. Partly because his prose, while gorgeous, is sometimes a little too flowery for its own good. And partly because this novel is nasty. Hailed as an “anti-Western,” Blood Meridian centers on the Glanton Gang, a lawless group of real-life killers who make ends meet by selling the scalps of the Native Americans they murder. The novel is a swirling, hallucinatory maelstrom of human evil, at the center of which is a seven-foot-tall albino man named Judge Holden who may or may not be the literal devil himself.

7. Let the Right One In

"Let The Right One In" cover art
(St. Martin’s Griffin)

The greatest modern vampire story, Let the Right One In is a coming of age horror-romance about a bullied young boy who befriends a spooky new neighbor girl in Stockholm, Sweden. The two kids begin a tender friendship, which is tested when the boy discovers his new bestie is a vampire. He passes the test with flying colors, pledging his undying loyalty to his friend even if it means helping her … eat. It’s a romantic novel about what it means to be young and in love—looking the other way when your beloved kills people and drinks their blood. THAT is relationship goals.

6. The Exorcist

The cover of William Peter Blatty's novel 'The Exorcist'
(Harper Collins)

Before it was adapted into one of the greatest horror flicks in existence, The Exorcist began its spooky tenure in pop-culture consciousness as a nightmarish novel. The daughter of a famous actress is sick, and two priests begin to suspect that her illness is a spiritual affliction brought about by demonic possession. The power of William Peter Blatty’s novel comes from the real-life feeling of helplessness and terror when dealing with an ailing child. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, even when the forces of Hell aren’t involved.

5. The Silence of the Lambs

Silence of the Lambs book cover.
(St. Martin’s Paperbacks)

Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs was responsible for birthing one of the most sinister villains in literary history: Hannibal Lecter. The former psychologist turned cannibal serial killer is locked up behind bars, biding his time until he can make an escape. Meanwhile, he’ll attempt to break into the mind of young FBI trainee Clarice Starling as she enlists him to help her profile an active serial killer. The novel is an extrapolation of Nietzsche’s most famous quote writ large: “If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

4. American Psycho

The cover of 'American Psycho,' by Bret Easton Ellis

Movie goers may have been sickened by the big screen adaptation of American Psycho, but the book is far worse. Patrick Bateman is a stock broker and a psychopath who is slowly losing his mind, living a morally bankrupt Wall Street life by day and descending into the depths of depravity by night. His cannibalistic serial killings are described in gruesome detail, grimly contrasted with the mundane foulness of his financial sector vocation. It’s a novel about superficiality, vanity, consumerism, violence, and greed. You’d have to be crazy to work on Wall Street. This guy actually is.

3. The Call of Cthulu

Cover art for "The Call of Cthulhu"

While technically a novella, H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu was made a classic from page one: “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” Yikes. With his story about a hapless protagonist uncovering an alien monstrosity beyond mortal comprehension, Lovecraft singlehandedly invented the cosmic horror genre. While his stories were not a success during his life, they inspired thousands of sci-fi and horror stories in the decades to come. And before you ask, yes there is an illustrated Dr. Seuss-inspired version.

2. Frankenstein

Cover of Frankenstein: the 1818 Text by Mary Shelley.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is not only a seminal work of horror, but arguably the first sci-fiction novel ever written. You know the basics: mad scientist builds a monster out of stitched together corpses. But despite what Hollywood would have you believe, this monster is capable of more than grunts and groans. He’s able to feel, to reason, to ponder, and to plot revenge. Frankenstein‘s thesis? Don’t play God. It isn’t going to end well for anyone involved.

1. It

The cover of Stephen King's novel 'IT'

Stephen King is hands down the king of the horror novel, and honestly, half of the entries on this list should be his. But that wouldn’t be fair to everyone else, would it? While Salem’s Lot, Carrie, and The Stand are contenders, It stands head and shoulders above the competition. Combining King’s tenderest coming of age story with his most horrifying monster, It is an unputdownable work of horror fiction. White-knuckle from start to finish. A group of kids must defeat an interdimensional shapeshifter masquerading as a killer clown. Why? Because it feeds on flesh and fear. According to the monster, fear “salts the meat” of children’s bodies. Shudder.

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Jack Doyle
Jack Doyle (they/them) is actually nine choirs of biblically accurate angels crammed into one pair of $10 overalls. They have been writing articles for nerds on the internet for less than a year now. They really like anime. Like... REALLY like it. Like you know those annoying little kids that will only eat hotdogs and chicken fingers? They're like that... but with anime. It's starting to get sad.